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I. The Habits, Methodologies and Procedures Which Govern Our Existence

Political activism tends to focus on issues and candidates, advocating for particular positions on particular issues, which cluster into and are framed by competing ideologies, and campaigning for candidates who, by and large, represent those competing ideologies. This system is the product of an evolutionary process (discussed at more length in section II)), and is certainly more functional than many that have historically preceded it or exist elsewhere. But it is not a perfected system (no system is), and some portion of our advocacy efforts should be dedicated to the challenge of consciously refining it.

In some other facets of life, particularly scholarship and law, procedures and methodologies have evolved which increase the role of reason in human belief formation and decision-making. Scientific methodology is a discipline which reduces error and increases accuracy. It has proven to be an acceleratingly robust technique for exploring the nature of the world and universe around and within us. Legal procedure is a discipline which assesses the accuracy of alleged facts and applies complex decision-making rules to them. It has proven to be a more accurate tool for pursuing just outcomes than the less rationalized procedures which preceded it, such as “trial by ordeal” or the purely idiosyncratic judgment of rulers or magistrates.

One of the challenges facing humanity is to refine and extend such disciplines. Though our electoral system is an example of such continuing refinement and extension, the context of our electoral system still involves a competition of largely arbitrary and underexamined ideological convictions. The products of scientific and legal methodologies are brought in haphazardly, and with only marginal influence. Popular opinions are formed irrationally, and voting choices are manipulated by well-funded marketing techniques, turning politics into a competition of cynical strategies favoring concentrated capital interests, and leading to dysfunctional outcomes.

It is a well-known and well-evidenced conclusion of cognitive science that human beings are not, by and large, persuaded by logical arguments and reliable evidence as much as by emotionally appealing messages that resonate with their already internalized frames and narratives. Some people misinterpret this to conclude that it is impossible to increase the salience of reason in popular political decision-making. But history demonstrates the error of such a conclusion: Scientific methodology, legal procedure, and constitutional democratic forms of government have all developed and gained prominence in the modern era, despite human irrationality.

II. The Lathe On Which We Spin…

The explanation for this paradox can be found in John Maynard Keynes’ quip that people “will do the rational thing, but only after exploring all other alternatives.” The archetype of this dynamic can be found in nature, in biological and ecological evolution, where creatures large and small, few of which are generally considered to be “rational,” evolve in highly rational ways, embodying strategies for reproductive success (and survival in order to facilitate it) that we, for all of our impressive human consciousness, can only mimic and emulate in our own intentional social institutions and technologies.

In biological evolution, this occurs through genes, which reproduce, occasionally mutate, compete for reproductive success, and thus evolve. In cultural evolution, this occurs through “memes” (cognitions), which reproduce (are communicated), frequently mutate (change in the process of communication by mixing with other memes to form new memes or being are refined or altered or misinterpreted by those to whom they are communicated), compete for reproductive success (compete with mutually exclusive beliefs, or compete with other technologies, or compete for limited cerebral capacity), and thus evolve. In both cases, packets of information reproduce, mutate, compete for reproductive success, and thus evolve. (For more in-depth explorations of this evolutionary ecology of human social institutional and technological systems, see, e.g., The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), plus several others in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts).

Cultural evolution isn’t inherently benign. Reproductive success doesn’t automatically favor those memes most conducive to human happiness and welfare. More powerful weapons prevail over less powerful weapons; conquerors spread their memes more prolifically than pacifists; those who mine natural resources more rapidly (even if unsustainably rapidly) prevail more surely; aggressive, predatory societies overrun others that may be laden with beautiful and life affirming memes that simply don’t survive the brutality of our existence. One role for our conscious participation is to counterbalance these dysfunctional aspects of our underlying cultural evolutionary processes.

But neither is cultural evolution inherently malignant. Reproductive success doesn’t automatically disfavor those memes and paradigms most conducive to human happiness and welfare. A social entity characterized by strong internal cooperation will tend to prevail over a social entity characterized by weak internal cooperation.  The robust production of prosperity tends to prevail over more sluggish economic systems. Broader and deeper systems of cooperation prevail over narrower and shallower systems of cooperation. Political and economic liberty, in which most or all people are robust participants in their own governance and in a production of wealth from which they benefit in proportion to the value of their contribution, tends to prevail over political and economic centralization, in which human energy and enterprise is less fully tapped and channeled.

This combined, almost paradoxical, evolutionarily favored status of both liberty and cooperation is precisely why the movement I am referring to is not just “the politics of reason,” but “the politics of reason and goodwill.” Decades ago, in an experiment by Robert Axelrod, competing computer programs using strategies of “cooperation” and “defection” in bilateral, repeated “prisoners’ dilemma” games (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems) demonstrated that the best strategy in a world in which cooperation yields collective benefits, but not cooperating is always better for the person who doesn’t cooperate, is first to cooperate (show goodwill), and then respond to the other in kind (continue to cooperate if they do, but not if they don’t). This is a mathematical demonstration of what we all intuitively know (or should know) to be true: Goodwill benefits us all.

That’s at least one reason why the evolutionary process I describe below, entering into the modern era, has produced notions of human rights and natural rights and individual rights, and notions of egalitarianism and fairness and mutual responsibility, that many of us treasure, and that all of us benefit from. The world is a better place not only when we are reasonable people, but also when we act with goodwill toward one another. And even if the distribution of individual reasonableness and goodwill is not something that is particularly tractable by organized efforts in social movements, the salience of reasonableness and goodwill might be (see below for an explanation of this distinction).

III. …And That We Ourselves Are Spinning.

Biological evolution is, in a sense, a passive process. The members of evolving species do not intentionally participate in the evolutionary process that creates them, identifying evolutionary goals and consciously pursuing them. They merely are more or less prolific reproducers, and so carry genes that are more or less well-represented in subsequent generations. But the human cultural echo of this evolutionary process plays out through our cognitions, which are the substance of our consciousness. It is the result of what we choose to believe, and the result of how successfully we advocate or promote or market our beliefs or innovations. We are active and conscious participants in our own cultural evolution.

The degree to which we consciously guide and channel this process in service to humanity is a function of how far-sighted we are in our goals, and how inclusive we are in our identifications. Genetic evolution occurs through the pursuit of very immediate, short-sighted goals: Surviving long enough to mate, mating, and ensuring in one way or another that some of your progeny survive to mate as well. Cultural evolution occurs through the pursuit of these as well (through the reproduction of memes that serve these goals), plus slightly less immediate and short-sighted goals, such as financial security or prosperity and satisfaction of various needs and desires, and conscious identification with genetically somewhat dissimilar others, such as co-members of a race, a tribe, a nation or a religious community. (Often, there is an element of marginal genetic similarity in these identifications, due to how they are historically produced.) Politics consists by and large of a struggle over how and if and how far to extend both our time horizon and our identification, and how ambitious or modest our collective goals should be.

This struggle occurs on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate basis, framed by competing comprehensive ideologies. We tend to emphasize the particular battles, and “recognize” that it is futile to try to win an argument over “which” ideology is superior. (Even so, the most zealous among us –myself included, but in a modified way explained in this essay and others like it– engage ceaselessly in debates over the relative merits of competing ideologies.)

The tendency to “duke it out” on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate basis comes at the cost of shortening our time horizons and narrowing our identifications, because issues attract our attention in proportion to their urgency and immediacy, elections are immediate and urgent contests, identifications in these struggles focus on the coalition of factions advocating particular positions within it, and, most importantly, the logic of political competition drives the most politically active among us into an almost exclusive focus on political strategies and tactics. The last dynamic strongly favors appealing to our basest and least far-sighted and least-imaginative inclinations as a polity, because these are the easiest to appeal to, and the most successful fulcrums on which to ply our political efforts.

If our evolutionarily determined habit of focusing on immediate issues and immediate candidates in service to immediate concerns and immediate desires does not best serve the challenge of being more conscious and inclusive participants in our own cultural evolution; and if it is futile to try, instead, to move the struggle to the level of a national debate over which substantive comprehensive ideology to embrace; then what is the alternative?

The alternative is diverting some portion of our time and attention and resources from both the issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate political struggle, andthe futile substantive ideological debate that envelopes and undergirds it, to an effort to transcend both by developing and investing in methodologies which systematically favor reason and goodwill in our personal and popular political decision-making process. To accomplish this, we need to find a foundation on which to build such a methodology on which most people, across ideological lines, can agree to, and which appeals to most people’s underlying frames and narratives, as well as recognizes the limited degree to which most people are willing to invest time and energy in our political processes.

Extremists of all stripes will tend to reject any such foundation that is proposed, correctly certain that it would undermine their ideological convictions and goals. But, though extremists dominate message boards and public attention, most people are not extremists. Most people are relatively moderate and pragmatic people who just want to be able to participate marginally, without investing too much time and energy, in our self-governance in a way which is both gratifying and productive. Many, of course, don’t want to do more than vote, but even those form their political opinions and electoral choices by means of a diffuse engagement with others around them and with various media of communications.

The challenge is to find, rally, and motivate those who both are or wish to be highly politically engaged, and who are interested in exploring the possibility of doing fundamentally better than we are now in moving the state, nation, and world in the direction of ever-increasing salience of reason and goodwill in the formation of our public policies, and to mobilize these activists in the design and implementation of a movement which accomplishes that goal. Obviously, any success would be marginal, and the world would continue much as it has. But even just marginal success in such an endeavor could have truly revolutionary implications over the course of time.

IV. The Proposal

I have already outlined my proposal (which I call, alternatively, “The Politics of Reason and Goodwill,” or “Transcendental Politics,” or “Holistic Politics”) in several essays (see, e.g,. A Proposal, The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, How to make a kinder and more reasonable world, and Transcendental Politics; plus dozens of others in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts). I’ll just summarize it very briefly here.

The social movement I envision is, by necessity, a non-partisan social movement which emphasizes the procedures by which we arrive at our beliefs, conclusions, policy positions, and electoral choices (which I’ll refer to from here on out as “political memes”), rather than the specific, substantial political memes themselves. It is a movement that is dedicated to not advocating for progressive or conservative ideologies or policies or candidates, but rather for a commitment to reason and goodwill and to the development of procedures and methodologies which systematically favor them.

This may seem to run up against the cognitive science reality that people are not primarily persuaded by reason in the formation of their political memes, and certainly the most fanatical and extreme will not be amenable to any suggestion to make any movement of any kind in any direction. But this movement does not depend on people in general changing their habit of political meme formation. Rather, it depends, first, on a dedicated group of people implementing the three components summarized below (and elaborated on at length in the other essays I linked to), and, secondly, on a significant number of people agreeing in principal only to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill. That second requisite is not a change in how people form their cognitive landscapes, but rather an appeal to existing frames and narratives, since most Americans, I would argue, identify themselves as, and wish to be, reasonable people of goodwill.

It’s very important not to be excessively distracted by the highly visible and vocal minority who clearly are too committed to irrationality and belligerence to even contemplate making such a commitment. In the end, any social movement that aspires to increase the salience of reason and goodwill in the formation of public policy, while it might continue to try and hope to gradually convert some of them, has to focus more on simply marginalizing the most irrational and belligerent among us, and rendering them outnumbered and de-fanged by a movement that just leaves them behind (in terms of their political and cultural influence, not in terms of our shared commitment to their well-being and the facilitation of their productive participation in society).

This movement, which I’ll refer to here as “PRG” (short for “Politics of Reason and Goodwill”), requires two very difficult, interrelated steps for adherents (that is, activists working to advance this social movement) to commit to, in order to realize the social step forward that the movement aspires toward: 1) In the context of the movement (though not in political activities pursued outside of the movement), advocacy for specific substantive positions, specific ideological convictions, specific candidates, and, in general, specific substantive political memes, must be suspended. PRG advocates for a commitment to an ideal that transcends ideology and a procedure for realizing that ideal, sincerely and with assiduous integrity agreeing not to displace that ideal or that procedure with current substantive certainties held by any adherents. And, 2) The sincere humility to realize that a procedure which accomplishes this to any meaningful degree is preferable to such substantive certainties currently held, because our current substantive certainties may or may not be what reason and goodwill, assiduously adhered to, would actually have led to, and we should prefer what a disciplined process suggests is most in accord with reason and goodwill over what we more haphazardly assume is most in accord with reason and goodwill.

The core political meme of this movement, in fact, is the meme that we are better served by disciplines and processes which systematically favor reason and goodwill than by our current ideologies that assume they are most informed by reason and goodwill. And, just as those who have practiced and implicitly and explicitly advocated for scientific methodology, rule of law, and democratic and constitutional governmental processes have fought uphill battles to establish them as central features of our shared cognitive and institutional landscape, assisted by the evolutionarily favored utility of these disciplines, so too is this extension of that logic evolutionarily favored by its utility and implementable, over time, through our relentless and passionate advocacy and practice.

PRG consists of three components: 1) The creation of a comprehensive data base or web portal which makes easily accessible all arguments which purport to apply reason to evidence in service to human welfare, along with citations by which to verify the reliability or accuracy of the evidence utilized (see “Component 1” of A Proposal for a more complete and extensive description); 2) The creation of an enterprise which disseminates the message, in emotionally appealing ways which communicate directly to existing frames and narratives, that we are better off, both individually and collectively, when we strive to be reasonable people of goodwill (see Component II of A Proposal and Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives for more complete and extensive descriptions), and 3) The establishment of a network of community organizations, which leverage existing community organizations (e.g., PTAs, HOAs, Kiwanis, Rotary Club, local churches and other religious institutions, park districts, etc.), to create a forum in which participants agree to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, to consider all points of view and arguments with an open mind, to be civil, and to improve the strength and solidarity of our local communities and of our nation (see Component III of A Proposal and Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN) for a more complete and extensive description).

The supposition is not that most people would avail themselves of the internet portal or spend significantly more time comparing arguments and counterarguments surrounding various policy issues, or that most people would attend the community meetings or participate on the on-line network, or that most people would change their habits in any visible or significant way. That would not be realistic. Rather, the hope is that this would create a new center of gravity, a new source of legitimacy for the concept of making decisions on the basis of reason and goodwill, a new nucleus from which a marginal increase in the number of people who take marginal steps in the direction of thinking and acting in accord with this ideal can form a source of information and inspiration for the many who make no change in their lives whatsoever. Few of us are scientists, but most of us rely in one way or another on science.

Think tanks and policy institutes are in some respects the prototype for Component I, but always lost their popular legitimacy by failing to be popularly accessible and popularly comprised institutions. All are seen, rightly or wrongly, as having been co-opted by a particular ideology. But, in PRG, the think tank is all of us, the arguments considered are all of them. And it does not stand alone, like an ivory tower out of reach, but in the center of a community, where it can be utilized and discussed by those ordinary people inclined to do so. Even if very few ever avail themselves of those resources (the portal and the community organizations), others (moderate others who are not lost to an impenetrable fanaticism) will be more inclined to look to those who do as relatively reliable sources of information. And those who do avail themselves of these recourses will be those who, both by predisposition and by the effects of utilizing these resources, will tend to have more moderate, better informed, better reasoned, more humane positions on social and political issues.

History is comprised of innovations, both humble and bold. Many such innovations are social institutional, and some have had enormous and lasting effects on our cultural evolution. The invention of money, of legal systems, of our own Constitution and national system of government, are all examples. Some technological innovations dovetail with these, or form the basis of social institutional innovations of their own: The computer, the internet, social media, have developed in ways which have created new opportunities and new dimensions of possibilities yet to be fully explored. PRG, or something similar to it, would be precisely the way to leverage these developments, and explore these possibilities.

I sincerely and fervantly believe that a dedicated cadre of people working dilligently to design and implement this plan, or a plan similar to it, can and almost inevitably would have a dramatic effect, over time, in moving our state, nation, and world gradually but significantly in the direction of reason and goodwill, in the direction of being wiser, more foresighted, more cooperative, more life-affirming, and more humane. I hope all who read this will join me in this effort, and will share it widely in the hope that others join us as well.

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I think that almost everyone agrees that we should all strive to base our public policies on reason and goodwill. People may disagree about what that means, and where it leads, but there aren’t too many people who are explicitly and consciously in favor of irrationality and ill-will. This fact provides the North Star of political activism, for we are at a huge advantage to live in a country and at a time when reason is not explicitly reviled (no matter how often it is implicitly reviled), and few argue that fighting for social injustices which serve their own interests is a defensible or admirable political ideology to adhere to (though many do indeed fight for social injustices which serve their own interests).

So, the question is: How do we organize to create a sustained, gradual shift in public opinion and public attitude, in favor of policies which are based on the application of reason to reliable data in service to universal goodwill? I will answer this question with a step-by-step sequence of premises and conclusions:

1) Most people perceive themselves to be, and want to be, reasonable people of goodwill.

2) To the extent that people are, and continue increasingly to become, reasonable people of goodwill, they are more likely to advocate for policies and procedures which advance the causes of reason and goodwill in our mode of self-governance.

3) A major political goal of those who want to see our mode of self governance more committed to reason and goodwill should be, therefore, the movement of people in the direction of being reasonable people of goodwill.

4) Since that is what most people want to be, and identify themselves as being, cognitive dissonance (the difference between who and what we are, on the one hand, and who and what we want to be, on the other) is a lever with which to pry one another in the direction of becoming more reasonable, and more motivated by goodwill.

5) If a non-partisan social-political movement could be established that is undeniably committed to reason and goodwill, that makes that its purpose and disciplines itself in service to that purpose, that would be an attractive force, and would exert pressure on that lever of cognitive dissonance, easing people in the direction of striving to be more reasonable, and striving to be more motivated by goodwill.

6) Designing a movement that does not set out to promote any substantive policies or any preconceived ideology, or to get candidates of any party or ideology or predisposition elected, but rather only to promote reason and goodwill in our political preferences and advocacy, creates both the credibility and integrity necessary to the success of such a movement.

7) Partisans who believe that this is not enough, that there are urgent needs to be met, threats and dangers and injustices and opportunities and promises and hopes and fears all to be reacted to and confronted, depending on one’s ideological disposition, need not be concerned about participating in such a movement, for it is not in place of anything, but rather only in addition to the rest of what we do to move the world (or keep it from being moved) in the direction that we believe it needs to be moved (or kept from being moved). We all agree, I hope, that whatever our political inclinations may be, we should each hold them on the conviction that they are informed by reason and goodwill. Responsibility demands of us that we put that conviction to the test: We should each desire, to the extent that our current respective political certaintes are either irrational or self-serving (as some almost inevitably are, to some degree, within each and every one of us), that we participate together in the effort to refine them accordingly.

8) The movement should define itself not around definite positions on substantive issues, but rather around a procedural commitment. That procedural commitment should be defined in response to the questions: i) “What set of procedures should responsible and engaged members of society, committed to trying to base all of their efforts on reason in service to goodwill, adhere to?” and ii) “What forms of community outreach and political advocacy can and should such people engage in, to best encourage others to make the same commitment and adhere to the same procedures?”

For a movement like this to be spectacularly successful, it does not require that many people be moved a large distance in a short time. A dramatic, positive, profound and sustainable shift can occur if a relatively small minority of people are moved over the course of years slightly in the direction of reason and goodwill. Such movement is not the mere swinging of the ideological pendulum, but rather the bending of the arc of the moral universe.

As perhaps a starting point for a larger discussion and a more organic and inclusive effort, I have written an elaborate and detailed answer to the questions in number 8, above: A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill. I hope all who read this will consider helping to promote this movement, to weave together all of the disparate efforts to engage in some part of it or some parallel version of it. By whatever name it ends up going, at whoever’s impetus, this truly is the movement we should all belong to.

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In my zeal to penetrate the mysteries of our lives, I often forget the value of simplicity. So here is a step-by-step explanation of A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill, in very simple and straightforward terms (if you find the idea interesting, it’s worth it to read the long version):

1) I’d argue that the main obstacle to the implementation of policies based on reason in service to goodwill in the U.S. is insufficient popular support. There are several reasons for this deficiency in popular support, including the prevalence of blind ideologies superceding any commitment to a process or methodology (similar to scientific methodology or legal procedure) which narrows debate down to the range defined by reason and goodwill. Therefore, one major challenge for those who want to increase the influence of reason motivated by goodwill in public discourse and political decision making is to promote a commitment to procedures or methodologies which systematically favor reason over irrationality, and clearly identify what values, goals, and interests are being served.

Certainly, increasing the breadth and depth of commitment to such methodologies increases popular support for the policies they generate and inform, and thus increases the extent to which we successfully implement them. So the question is: How do we increase the commitment to procedures and methodologies which favor reason and goodwill, and by doing so increase the popular support of well-reasoned and socially responsible policies in general?

2) When those of us committed to the promotion of reason and goodwill as the guiding principles in political decision-making limit ourselves to fighting it out on an issue-by-issue and candidate-by-candidate basis, we appear, in the eyes of most marginally engaged moderate Americans, to belong to the blindly ideological camp which supports the same issues or candidates, and to be just equal and opposite counterparts of those blind ideologues in the opposite camp. We need to establish a movement that does not assume a presupposed ideological bias (other than reason and goodwill), or primarily argue substantive policy, but rather one which advocates only the application of reason to evidence in service to goodwill. This is not something that anyone who aspires to be (or be seen as) a reasonable person of goodwill can simply reject out of hand.

3) A movement that can remove itself from the frame of “political ideology,” and into the frame of “alternative to political ideologies” gains an advantage. One movement has recently gained some of that advantage by framing itself as an alternative to existing political parties (the Tea Party Movement), but has done so not by framing itself in terms of a commitment to reason in service to goodwill, but rather in terms of a commitment to a zealously held political ideology (small government, individual liberty, etc.). That ideology is not a commitment to a process, to reason and goodwill, but rather to a fixed belief that, much like a broken clock that always points to the same hour, is occasionally right and frequently wrong. In other words, it is a fixed ideology that sometimes is most reasonable and best serves mutual goodwill, but frequently is not and does not. It is, in a sense, the opposite of what I am advocating.

4) I think that as many or more marginally engaged moderate Americans would be attracted to the more profound alternative that rallies around “reason and goodwill” or “kindness and reasonableness” as have been attracted to the Tea Party. I think lots of mostly silent Americans are sick of politics and hungry for “kindness” and “reasonableness.” They just don’t know where to find it. And they don’t trust existing political movements, because existing movements are still dominated by ideologues and focused on insufficiently examined or questioned substantive positions.

5) This movement has to distinguish itself from what’s already in place, so it can’t use the labels of existing political ideologies or movements. It must establish a new political vocabulary, talking about being reasonable people of goodwill, removed from those “other” ideologies shouting back and forth at each other.

6) One of the major obstacles to the establishment of reason in service to goodwill as a political movement is that it is very taxing on individuals to have to make sense of the complex and massive information relevant to public policy decision making. Thus a core challenge of the movement I am advocating is to provide a credible, comprehensive, user-friendly portal through which to access and evaluate relevant information and competing arguments. This would be an enormous on-going project, focused on maximizing the signal-to-noise ratio without promoting one conclusion or another. The goal would be to create a systematic, triangulated evaluation of all arguments, including competing evaluations of what interests are served or undermined by each policy idea. This is the first component of my proposed project (see A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill for more details).

7) This first component not only creates a single reliable source for relevant public policy information and analysis, it also legitimates the claim to the mantle of “reasonableness.” It is the first component of a movement dedicated to the compilation and diffusion of comprehensive systematic analysis, to cutting through the cacophony of arbitrary opinions and political marketing campaigns. It’s the effort to lay everything we know and think on the table, all the work that’s been done by people trying to organize and evaluate relevant information, from all across the ideological spectrum, to sort out the information from the disinformation.

8) In order to claim the mantle of “goodwill,” this movement must be divorced from politics as we currently conceptualize it, focused entirely on cultivating cooperation. It’s purpose is to improve the quality of our lives, to recognize and facilitate our interdependence as members of a society, and to help one another to live the healthiest, freest, most secure, most satisfying, most enjoyable lives we can. This movement is addressed to those who are tired of ”politics,” but who want to make our communities stronger, and work toward shouting at one another less and listening to one another more, working together as reasonable people of goodwill in a shared society. That’s the third component of my proposal: Organizing in our communities to improve the quality of our lives locally in our neighborhoods and communities, and to create a foundation and context for civil discourse about city-and-countywide, statewide, national, and global issues (again, see A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill for more details).

9) The challenge of building a bridge from this locally generated “goodwill” to support of well-reasoned public policies that are motivated by such goodwill involves redefining government as much as possible, in as many minds as possible, from some external thing imposed on us (what it was, to an already diminishing extent, prior to the American Revolution 230 years ago), to an imperfect and problematic agent of our collective will (the meaning of the popular sovereignty that we established as a result of that war). We do that by connecting the community-building work to the public policies we support that are mere logical extensions of it, using all media of communication to reinforce this idea, the notion of belonging to a society, of being interdependent, of existing in a systemic social reality in which public policies affect the amount and distribution of opportunities, the robustness and justness and sustainability of the framework of our coexistence. That’s the second component of my proposal (again, see A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill for more details). I call it “meta-messaging,” reinforcing the single, underlying message of being reasonable people of goodwill, at all levels of social organization.

One way to think of this second component is as an institutionalization of Marley’s Ghost and the Three Spirits from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Just as these uninvited counselors tapped into Ebenezer Scrooge’s own frames and narratives, and found within his formative past, his incomplete present, and his foreboding future the key to his own redemption, we must seek to activate the compassion and humanity that lies dormant or obstructed in many of those who blindly oppose compassionate and humane public policies. If our efforts succeed in moving one thousandth of our modern day Scrooges one thousandth of the distance toward reason and goodwill that their fictional archetype traveled, it would be a significant contribution to our ability to improve our social institutional landscape.

10) It’s important that the policies implicitly advocated by this movement be well-reasoned public policies motivated by goodwill, drawing on the first component, to legitimately avoid the argument that certain policies may be motivated by goodwill, but have effects that, on balance, detract from rather than contribute to others’ welfare. The response is that adherence to the politics of reason and goodwill eschews reliance on blind assumptions, but rather is committed to ensuring that our choices of action are the best informed ones possible, taking all knowledge and arguments into account.

11) I say “the policies implicitly advocated by this movement” because it is about changing attitudes and moving the zeitgeist, not about direct political advocacy. The Politics of Reason and Goodwill is about advocacy of Reason and Goodwill, and letting the politics follow from that. Members or fellow-travelers will of course be involved in other activities, advocating for the policies and candidates to which reason and goodwill have led them in good faith, sometimes in disagreement with one another. That’s fine; this movement isn’t to control choices, but to nourish the mind and the heart in the belief that minds and hearts so nourished will, on average, make more reasonable choices, better guided by mutual goodwill.

It’s a fairly simple idea that becomes complicated only when it is fully fleshed out. It’s very ambitious, focused on the long-run rather than the short-run, and on marginally, gradually shifting the underlying foundation of political discourse rather than winning a little ground momentarily in an endless tug-o-war. It is a project aspiring to the overarching framework I’ve described, but comprised of numerous more modest goals, such as creating networks of community organizations dedicated to doing good works locally (such as tutoring and mentoring kids) and fostering robust, thoughtful, civil discourse (see Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN)).

This proposal is essentially the answer to the question “if we were a rational society, striving to govern ourselves as intelligently and compassionately and pragmatically as possible, how would we go about it?” It is not a panacea. It will not any time in the foreseeable future change human nature, or erase human bigotries, or eliminate blind ideological rancor. It would represent one, small, marginal effort to do better, and, if phenomenally successful, would move the center of gravity of public discourse in this nation a tiny bit in the direction of reason and goodwill, over a very long time. But even such tiny changes can have enormous effects.

Please join me in trying to implement this idea, to find an organizational home for it, or independent financial backing. Again, any help in moving this project forward would be greatly appreciated!

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I’ve written extensively on the “Political Fundamentalism” of the Tea Party, and its three idolatries (“Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, Small Government Idolatry). Though I’ve emphasized the degree to which it defines the Right, political fundamentalism of a different flavor is also rampant on the Left. This is particularly tragic, because the Left, despite its foibles, is substantively far closer to where procedurally disciplined reason and goodwill lead, but to the extent that it is not defined by such procedurally disciplined reason and goodwill, it loses much of this natural advantage in the struggle for our national soul.

Personal political convictions on the Left are, for the most part, as dogmatic, vitriolic, and arbitrary as those on the Right. Though those convictions have, on average and inconsistently, arrived at where reason and goodwill, diligently pursued, lead to, they have not generally done so by personally diligently pursuing reason and goodwill, but rather by doing exactly what their counterparts on the Right do: Gravitating toward the political ideology that best resonates with their predispositions, and then cognitively and emotionally wrapping themselves around it and committing themselves to it. I have written extensively on how this fact helps to erase the natural advantage that would otherwise accrue to better-reasoned, more factually-supported, and more humane political ideological commitments (see, e.g., Ideology v. Methodology, The Signal-To-Noise Ratio, The Elusive Truth, Scientific Misconduct: There’s No Such Thing As Immaculate Conception, The Voice Beyond Extremes).

Furthermore, not all of those arbitrary certainties widely held by left-wing ideologues are actually substantively superior to their counterparts on the Right. The cost of adhering to blind ideology isn’t only losing an advantage that would otherwise have accrued, but also, too often, failing to achieve that natural advantage at all, by failing to identify the wisest policies that best serve the public interest. The Left is far too laden with oversimplistic, systemically naïve, and ultimately counterproductive false certainties, while the Right is not completely devoid of legitimate insights. The ultimate challenge is less that the Left wins than that the best and most humane ideas win. And that ultimate challenge is best met by a broadening and deepening commitment to establishing a procedure designed to promote the implementation of the best policies, independently of ideological presumptions about what those are.

While I believe that the dogma of the Left is closer than the dogma of the Right to what such a methodologically disciplined process (similar to scientific methodology or legal procedure) would produce, it doesn’t really matter: I’m willing to put my beliefs on the line, and if and when such a process favors Right-wing over Left-wing policy recommendations, so be it. We need to start shifting political discourse away from fighting over our more fallible conflicting substantive conclusions, and toward fighting for an agreed upon process by which to arrive at them which reduces their fallibility.

Obviously, neither the majority of people engaging in political discourse and activism nor the majority of voters are going to suddenly relinquish their own ideological convictions and embrace instead the application of scientific and judicial methodology to the derivation of new convictions. The opportunity to do so, and the historical evidence of the value of doing so, have long existed. Economists, political scientists, legal scholars, and policy analysts have long, often implicitly, been making the case for doing so. American politics will continue much as it is today, a semi-orderly competition of precipitous false certainties, into the foreseeable future, gradually evolving according to forces I’ve described elsewhere (see, e.g., The Politics of Consciousness , Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future).

But just as scientific methodology gradually, almost imperceptibly, and still very incompletely, displaced religious dogma as the most reliable source of understanding the systemic dynamics of nature, and just as legal procedure gradually, almost imperceptibly, and still very incompletely, displaced prejudice and bigotry in the determination of guilt or innocence, so too can a similar commitment to a similar procedure applied to political beliefs have a similar effect over time. It’s a worthy and attainable long-term goal to which to commit ourselves.

My argument is not that all matters in the political universe can be reduced to testable hypotheses and non-controversial paradigms, but rather that the excessive arbitrariness of political ideology can gradually be pushed to the margins, the transparency of interests and values served and harmed by particular orientations and policies increased, and the range of rational policy ideas in service to the public interest more clearly defined.

That is the alternative to idolatry.

(See A Proposal for a slightly revised version of this post, followed by an extensive elaboration of its various components)

To advance the cause of Reason and Goodwill, I propose a project, or movement, that is comprised of three parts: 1) a policy analysis component; 2) an information dissemination component; and 3) a community organizational network component. While I conceptualize each of these in somewhat novel ways, in the context of grass roots political activism, it is the third which is perhaps the most innovative and crucial component, and so it is with the third that I will begin.

Currently, grass roots activism by those who claim the mantel of advocacy of Reason and Goodwill is almost entirely focused on electoral politics and public policy as generated through governmental mechanisms. As such, it is very easy for the opponents of this movement to dismiss these activists as people who want to take the opponents’ money and give it to others. One aspect of this conceptualization is that government is not considered an agent of the people, but rather an external entity which imposes itself on people and deprives them of their liberty. The arguments for and against this conceptualization are irrelevant for my present purposes. There are clearly many people who do indeed adhere to this conceptualization, and that fact is what’s relevant.

George Lakoff in The Political Mind talked about the need to activate the frames and narratives in all of us that are empathy-based, if we want to be successful in implementing empathy-based public policies. There are few people of any ideological stripe who oppose community involvement, and most actively support it. Many conservatives are involved in their communities through churches, civic groups, and PTAs, for instance. Such involvement is where their empathy-based frames and narratives reside, along with, in many cases, a notion of “family values,” some aspects of which are also empathy based. By increasing the association of these activities with what is currently referred to as “the progressive agenda” (though avoidance of the word “progressive” might be crucial to the success of this project), we can increase the value of the (possibly renamed) brand, attracting more people to it, including some who never imagined that they might be attracted to it.

History is replete with examples of the persuasive power of those who “walk the walk.” Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are two examples of “progressives” in their day, fighting to advance particular causes (Indian Independence and African American Civil Rights, respectively), whose examples were so compelling that few today would denounce what either of them stood for. They were “political entrepreneurs,” mobilizing “charismatic authority” in service to humanity. We can’t all be such giants, and we aren’t all willing to make the sacrifices it requires, but we can all make more modest sacrifices and rise to more modest heights, demonstrating the sincerity of our convictions and, by doing so, making the power of our message that much more irresistible.

There are already many who invest a great deal of time, energy, money, and personal commitment into advancing the progressive agenda. If some significant fraction can be persuaded to invest some increased portion of that time, energy, money, and personal commitment into increased, non-partisan community involvement, they will contribute greatly to increasing the association of the policies they advocate with the spirit of goodwill in service to mutual benefit. And by being direct agents of reason and goodwill in their communities, the public policies such activists favor are given a human face; rather than being easily conceptualized as the impositions of a remote overlord, such policies can be plainly seen to be the sincere preference of some good neighbors and community members who believe that the spirit of community can be expressed not just directly, but also through our government acting as an agent of our collective will.

I describe this component at greater length in several posts on my blog, Colorado Confluence. The post with the most concise and focused treatment is “The Power of ‘Walking the Walk'”: http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=1540.

This community-strengthening component isn’t only a laudable end in itself, but it also serves the second component I mentioned: Messaging. The cause of Reason and Goodwill is a powerful one, one which few would explicitly claim opposition to. The most pronounced failure of those who are its political advocates is the failure to connect the political expression of Reason and Goodwill to the widespread individual aspirations to be reasonable people of goodwill. One aspect of addressing that failure involves modeling what it means to be reasonable people of goodwill, and cultivating the commitment to it that might eventually translate into increased popular support for public policies that are expressions of reason and goodwill.

More generally, the messaging has to rely less on academic or legalistic argumentation, and more on resonating with the frames and narratives that form people’s minds. We need to reach people where they live, finding their own empathetic frames and narratives, and connecting the set of well-reasoned public policies which are empathy-based to those frames and narratives. Therefore, the second component of the project I am proposing is the continuing and focused development of a cognitively sophisticated system of disseminating not just “progressive” ideas, but doing so in ways which resonate with non-progressive mindsets.

This project, therefore, involves not only increasing popular positive associations with progressive policies by modeling a progressive spirit of mutual goodwill, and forming increased positive social connections with people who do not self-identify as “progressives,” but also involves communicating that same message in ways that are precisely tailored to most effectively resonate with those who are currently perhaps only marginally inclined to be attracted by it. The community involvement becomes the most important conduit for the message, communicated with increased credibility, and couched in increasingly effective ways.

Finally, the first component of this project involves reducing the arbitrariness and exclusiveness of what is assumed to be those policies which advance the cause of Reason and Goodwill. Rather than a traditional policy think tank with an ideological bias, this component of the project would have to strive to map out the entire range of public policy ideas and options, guided only by a commitment to reason in service to the public interest, acknowledging legitimate debates and ranges of uncertainty (such as, for example, between Keynesian and Chicago School Economics, and the associated policies of economic stimulus through public spending v. “fiscal conservativism”).

I envision this component as a very ambitious social institutional analogue to “the human genome project,” in which the social institutional landscape is mapped out using available analytical tools (e.g., microeconomic analysis, network analysis, legal analysis, meme theory, etc.), comprising a coherent complex dynamical systems paradigm, and then, within this context, all competing ideologies, policy ideas, proposals, and analyses are cataloged and evaluated, controlling as much as possible for ideological bias, simply subjecting the universe of human social and political thought to the crucible of methodologically rigorous reason.

Two important dimensions of this project need to be highlighted: 1) These three components are not mutually segregated, but are rather integral aspects of a single coherent effort, reinforcing one another, and creating a powerful synergy of progressive thought, communication, and action; and 2) An enormous amount of work has been done in all three areas, under a variety of organizational umbrellas; utilization and integration of the product of those efforts, and of the existing social institutional material that has been generated from all quarters, is a large part of what this project would be about. The community involvement component would actively seek out partnerships with churches and other religious organizations, civic organizations, PTAs, park districts, non-profits, local businesses, and all others who have already developed a community infrastructure to work with and through.

We would, through this synthesis of focused analysis, focused communication, and focused action, weave the spirit of reason and goodwill into the social fabric as it currently exists, and contribute to the ongoing evolution of that social fabric in ways more conducive to the cause of Reason and Goodwill.

I believe that this project would have to avoid direct political advocacy of any kind (a function already addressed by other organizations) in order to preserve its legitimacy, and to reduce the obstacles that explicit partisanship creates. Its purpose would be to explore the social institutional landscape with as little bias as possible (but with an explicit commitment to advancing the public interest through the advocacy of reason in service to mutual goodwill), and through a combination of direct involvement in our communities and well-designed (cognitively targeted) messaging, disseminating that understanding as widely and deeply as possible. This would “soften the ground” for traditional political advocacy, and would also increase the quality of what we are advocating for (by decreasing ideological presumption and increasing openness to all ideas).

I am currently looking for any and all feedback, assistance, direction, and referrals to others who might offer the same. I can envision this as either being a directly funded project that I oversee (or merely participate in), or as a project that finds a home in an existing organizational context. I am completely amenable to these, and any other, possible paths of implementation. Please email me at steve.harvey.hd28@gmail.com

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The bulk of my posts aggregate to inform A Proposal for a social movement, one which combines devising the best policy analyses in service to humanity with the best and most innovative and cognitively sophisticated messaging in order to attract an ever-widening range of the public to the agenda of Reason and Goodwill. The element that may be most novel and most powerful, however, is not this combination of the essentially familiar ingredients of policy analysis and messaging, but rather the one that can be a game changer, the one that may prove to be an irresistible force: Organizing not to change government or implement particular public policies so much as to create a simultaneously personal and social commitment to one another, by actually “walking the walk” of goodwill,  of mutual interdependence  and support, associating with “the progressive agenda” the attraction of a lived commitment to other people’s welfare.

As I wrote in The Ultimate Political Challenge, a single Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. captures the imagination and, in time, wins over the hardened hearts of much of the opposition. They both knew the power of their goodwill, of their personal commitment to it, and acted with the discipline to turn that goodwill into a social force. These two “political entrepreneurs” mobilized their “charismatic authority” in service to specific issues within a Progressive world view (Indian Independence and African American Civil Rights, respectively). What we lack today are similarly compelling political entrepreneurs, mobilizing similarly dedicated charismatic authority. And the step that hasn’t yet been taken is to mobilize those forces not to address a single issue, but to address the underlying issue of being a people dedicated to reason and empathy.

Today, there are many progressives angrily striving to implement progressive policies, but too often doing so with little or no internalized, personalized, and dedicated goodwill toward fellow human beings. It is just another blind ideology in their hands, not a commitment, not something they’re willing to sacrifice for. I challenge each and every one of them –AND MYSELF– not just to talk the talk, but also to walk the walk, to be, to some small degree, a tribute to those who were willing to give their lives to humanity, by giving some portion of our own. I challenge us all to strive to be “political entrepreneurs,” to strive to invoke our own “charismatic authority,” to demonstrate that individual initiative does not have to be mobilized only in service to the accumulation of individual wealth. I challenge us all to do good by being good, and by being good, vastly increasing our credibility as advocates for public policies aligned with that spirit.

The Tea Partiers, and other extreme individualists, who have managed to rationalize an indifference to the suffering of others and a denial of the responsibilities to others that come with the blessings of good fortune, are able to dismiss Progressives as people who want to spend other people’s money against their will, because, in fact, that’s all they see. But what if they saw instead the people who organize to mentor neighborhood kids, to help out those who are facing a crisis, to counsel and assist people in need, to be what they preach we as a society should be, and only in conjunction with that lived commitment, only as an auxiliary to it, are struggling to create a government that facilitates what they are already doing every day, in every way, as a natural part of our shared existence? Can you imagine the force of such a social movement?

All reasonable people of goodwill, who want to promote reason and goodwill, need to do so on the ground, in daily life, independently of government, if they want the advance of reason and goodwill to prevail. Those who can’t summon enough commitment to model for others what reason and goodwill look and feel like need to recognize that they are no better than those they oppose, no more than a bunch of people trying to impose their will on others without being willing to live up to the demands they themselves have made. No wonder the Progressive Movement is making so little headway! Who can trust armchair altruists, who talk a good game but live lives no more noble or generous than those they condemn?

I passionately want for us to become a kinder and gentler nation, a nation of people lifting one another up, a nation aspiring to realize the potential of the human spirit. There is one clear path to that end: For all of those who want the same to commit themselves to its realization, by becoming the kinds of irresistible beacons to reason and goodwill that Gandhi and King were, that each of us can be, even if to some smaller extent. By as many of us as possible striving to do so, we will give the Progressive brand a reputation for sincere goodwill that ever fewer will be able to deny. And the future will increasingly belong to what is best and most admirable in human beings.

This is what a commitment to Progressive policies demands of us: A commitment to personal progress in service to social progress, to being as individuals what we are advocating that we become as a society. Striving to rise to that challenge is the greatest gift we could give to our children, to their children, and to ourselves.

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